Proletarian Prufrock

Although the term “popular culture” denotes the production and consumption habits of mass audiences, proletarian poetry of the 1930s complicates this definition by aiming not to facilitate passive consumption or to enhance corporate profits, but rather to awaken the masses from the complacent dreams generated and sustained by popular cultural forms. According to the editors of Partisan Review in the 1930s, the very task of the proletarian writer was to bridge the gulf between popular and intellectual audiences:

…his task is to work out a sensibility and a set of symbols unifying the responses of his total audience. Insofar as this cannot be done overnight, his innovations must be constantly checked by the responses of his main audience, the working class, even while he strives to raise the cultural level of the masses.[1]

Though proletarian literature is more explicitly political, it shares with literary modernism a desire to challenge habitual thinking, disable passive consumption, and raise cultural consciousness. These goals help explain why T.S. Eliot served as a model for proletarian poets in the thirties, despite his seemingly antithetical political commitments. How and why T.S. Eliot—a self-described “Classicist in literature, Royalist in politics, and Anglican in religion”—inspired the next generation of radical leftist poets is a neglected chapter in the history of modernism(s).

Alfred Hayes’s “In a Coffee Pot,” a poem about the plight of unemployed working men during the Depression, which appeared in the debut issue of Partisan Review, offers a case in point.[2]  Steeped with Eliotian images and cadences, the poem evokes Prufrock’s famous line, “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons,” in its very title. Like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Hayes’ poem opens with a direct address to “you,” establishing a dreary urban setting at the evening hour:

Tonight, like every night, you see me her
Drinking my coffee slowly, absorbed, alone.
A quiet creature at a table in the rear
Familiar at this evening hour and quite unknown.
The coffee steams. The Greek who runs the joint
Leans on the counter, sucks a dead cigar.
His eyes are meditative, sad, lost in what it is
Greeks think about the kind of Greeks they are.

Hayes learns from Eliot how to diagnose personal and cultural paralysis through metonymic images of passivity, lifelessness, and decay. The Greek shop owner’s “dead cigar” is Hayes equivalent of Eliot’s “burnt-out ends of smoky days.”[3] Hayes uses irregular, internal, and half-rhyme (e.g. “steams”/”leans”), though he cannot quite match Eliot’s skill. Compare Hayes’ predictable rhyme of “alone” and “unknown” to the opening of Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” which rhymes “a fatalistic drum” with, a few lines later, “a dead geranium.” The falling off of the rhyme on the unstressed last syllable makes audible the sense of unfulfilled hopes and desires.

But this is just one example, and much more material remains to be explored. Last year, the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University made the full run of the Partisan Review freely available online. It is in this magazine that we can find surprising, compelling evidence that the staunchly conservative Eliot inspired leftist writers and editors in the thirties, even becoming a rallying point for this Marxist-leaning magazine.

[Note: I just gave this paper at the T. S. Eliot Society meeting, where it was greeted by the response: “When are you going to publish this?” Little did they know that I haven’t gotten much further than looking at “In a Coffee Pot” and a few editorials. But my paper could be a starting point for a team project, and Dr. Vincent Sherry pulled me aside to tell me about a wealth of material that provides further support to this thesis—”if indeed there will be time” (and a team of researchers) to develop it.]

[1] William Phillips [Wallace Phelps] and Philip Rahv, “Problems and Perspectives in Revolutionary Literature,” Partisan Review, I:3 (June/July 1934), 8.

[2] Alfred Hayes, “In a Coffee Pot,” Partisan Review, I:1 (Feb./Mar. 1934), 12-15.

[3] T.S. Eliot, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1991).

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